Disecting The Gomez Connundrum

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Hi folks! This is a rare venture for me back onto the blog. I kind of figured, knowing myself, that at some point or another I would be compelled to add my voice to something that was happening. On this Gomez subject, noting Boyle and Berkshire's works of late, I couldn't just add my two cents in as simple comments. This post began that way, then exploded into larger thoughts. - Robert L

I've been watching the Scott Gomez concerns unfold from the sidelines, reading a wide variety of accounts that attempt to understand and underline the negative and positive issues in his game. A few of these takes have practically sought to absolve Gomez, for all the wrong reasons in my opinion, and for that reason I could no longer sit idly by without comment.

What follows may come across as being a critical analysis or rant of the player's style, but it is only meant as an assessment of the situation. All told, Gomez's dilema is really just the story of a player who has long had success come to him by playing a certain way and that style has now hit a wall. This is an attempt to understand why, and look and potential fixes.

Off the very top, there will be no discussion of benching him, reducing his ice time, or sitting him out. Gomez is a good and talented player, and these are simply not options. There is an old adage that says when going through hell, one must keep on going. It is the only way through. There will also be no mention of salary other than noting it here. No one is wishing for Scott to play up to it, we just want that 70 point pace center back on his game.

UNDER THE MAGNIFYING GLASS - IT'S NOT PRESSURE, BUT EXPOSURE

I've often thought about why very good players arrive in Montreal and their production dips. It seems that many of them, after a good start or a strong first season with the team, have gone into decline. Many associate this with pressure, but I've always seen it a different way. With so much about Montreal hockey being microscopically analyzed and magnified, when a player is doing things wrong, the whole world gets to see it and learn about it. The media makes it a story, understandibly, and we arrive at where we are now.

I don't know if it is because I tend to watch games and analyze players from a different perspective, one that's hardly casual, but I try to bring more than the obvious to the fore. To do this, I often look at player from an opponant's point and from a rival coach's angle. I feel it brings a wider assessment to the discussion.

One facet of Gomez's troubles presently is that, not only has it become a story, but the nature and reasons for his slump, and the repetitiveness of his errors, have practically combined to make it front page news, accessible to everyone with eyes and ears outside of Montreal. When any good player hits the skids, it gets many heads talking and analyzing. In Montreal, this is magnified and given added context. Some will say the proportion to reality is skewered, but no one will deny the situation has gotten serious.

Every opposing coach is aware of Gomez's liabilities presently, because of this. They are doing their jobs. For an opposing player or coach, dealing with Gomez as a threat is being made increasingly easy by the manner in which he is playing. Nullifying Gomez right now is a piece of cake, because he consistently and predictably chooses bad play options, has absolutely no confidence when he hits the blue line, and varies little in his approach. I do not subscribe to the notion that if he continues to attempt the exact same things that better results will just suddenly appear. In my words, he is a "figured out" player.

That's a downside of being highly exposed as a Montreal Canadien. Just look at the number of unrestricted free agents in the past few years who have gone unsigned by the team, unsigned elsewhere, or have gotten reductions in salary. If someone made a list, it would be staggering. For me, that fact has always played into the reluctance of free agents signing with the team. It's not the pressure, it is the exposure if they fail.

AND GOMEZ IN ALL THIS....

Simply put, there are a litany of things Gomez is doing wrong. Perversely, much of it is things that have worked for him in the past, but what we are now seeing is that they no longer work due to the fact that players are aware of how to counter them. These habits in his game drive many nuts. Here's rundown:

- Gomez almost always chooses what's to the left side of him as an option, whether it be a pass or an area to skate safely to. It is where he chooses most often to place himself, shoot occassonally and pass from. The right defenseman takes him out, a centremen following eats up the middle. Result, this habit kills right side options, and as he is a left handed pass, he has painted himself into a virtual corner.

- He mostly only uses the right side as an option when skating there himself, cutting across from the left, or when on occasion his right winger is completely open. When using the right side, his weak backhand protection of the puck is exposed. Gomez's wrist shot, not strong to begin with, is eliminated. His backhand option, is rare to non-existant. Result is Gomez has again eliminated all options other than a puck dump into the corner and his wingers are both neutralized unless there is the option to go directly to the net for rebounds. Passes in this situation are rare to non-existant. The defenseman at the right point is by now completely covered.

- By overly relying on skating to the left, often for safety, he cannot pass to his left winger, unless it is a drop pass. Result is he is also placing his left winger in a position further from the net than he, which is playing into exactly what opponents want.

- As a center working mostly the left side of the offensive zone, he is tirefully predicatable. Skating the puck into the zone, his first instinct is to coil to the left board and pass off. If there is room, and he sees he will not be ridden into the boards and rubbed out, he will stride to the net, most likely only with a weak shot left as an option. The result here, is that in either option, he's killed time and space, while allowing defensive schemes to set up, countering his and his linemates options.

- Due to the fact that he often hits the blueline in his highest gear, he has no burst left to get by a defender and make it to the net. If he does choose this option, it is often accompanied by a short hesitant glide that reveals his intent. The result is, if he does not opt to take a hit or go wider around in doing this, he makes the play a simple position read one on one.

- His reluctance to get mashed into boards to make a play results in another way he removes time and space from his plays.

- His reluctance to drive to the net and take a defender with him results in less time and space for his wings, as he does little to move defenders out of position.

SOLUTIONS

Many people have put forth opinions on Gomez's play recently, with the notion that in time he will get back to his usual game. The notion is that if he continues to do what he does well, odds will even out the rest. The trouble is, he is doing little well offensively.

As I see it, he is playing exactly as he always has, and that is the problem. It is why he is so easily read. If fans and astute watchers can suss predictability from his gestures, imagine how much easier it is presently for those dealing with him on the ice to neutralize him. He's run out of cards to play and badly needs to reinvent his game somewhat.

A leopard cannot change his spots, but there are things that Gomez can attempt that will throw some curves to his approach. There are three things that I believe would help.

First, Gomez has to accept the physical part of the game. It's often been noted that he reacts badly, taking retaliation penalties when bodied hard near the boards. This fact, and his reluctance to go there on his own state loud and clear that he does not enjoy or accept the physical aspect of his job. That's got to change. A successful centerman uses all the ice available to him, not simply the paths of least resistance.

Secondly, making better use of the right side upon blueline entry will widen his scope of choices. Left defenseman unused to dealing with him will now have to. That will add seconds to his time and space options, while creating a bit of confusion on defense. This will also bring his left handed passes to the middle ice, with better vision and more options in range. It will return creativity to his linemates as well.

Third, Gomez could increase his accuracy on shots and passes with a straighter stick blade. As a center, it's my opinion that the amount of curvature on his stick reduces his effectiveness, accuracy and velocity. As it is, the puck must be perfectly placed on the blade for a succesful pass. There are less inches on a curved blade for this than there is on a straight blade. It is surprising that he uses the curves he does, considering his game, and I think he would increase his effectiveness with a more suitable blade.

It takes a fraction of a second off having to be prefectly comfortable when passing with a blade that has too much curve. Being that many of Gomez's passes are of the no look variety, would it not make sense to do whatever it take to increase their accuracy?

NOT THAT SMALL, BUT PLAYING SMALL

Scott Gomez is listed as being 5' 11'' and weighing 198 pounds, which by all accounts and numbers makes him the size of an average NHL player. He is not big, but he is certainly not a small player by any standard. If he is often miscast as a smaller forward, it is because he plays small.

No one is asking for Gomez to become a power forward, but is it too much to ask that he be improved physically in terms of his puck possession skills. He has the size to be better, and has to work on the willingness to harder to move off the puck.

The aforementioned straight blade would help here, along with concentration on better weight distribution in his stance when in possession of the puck. As it is, he is rarely braced to accept a hit or a check. It may be an uncorrectable flaw in his game, but there has to be some awareness of this for there to be improvement.

An often mentioned facet of his small play is his reluctance to take a hit to make a pass. This is a pivotal flaw, one that if corrected would improve his offensive game by great leaps. Gomez can do wonders with time and space. Accepting additional slashes, elbows and facewashes that come with the dirtier areas of the ice buys both himself and his wings more of all precious time and space. Taking a defender out, or bringing one with him away from the middle is a responsibility of the puck carrier. When many point that Gomez is at times unaacountable, this is the gist of it.

ALL IN THE GOAL OF ENABLING MORE PRECISION PASSES, MORE OPTIONS

Back to the leopard analogy, it is essential that Gomez recognize the need for alterations to his style. A complete overhaul is impossible on a veteran, but awareness is a good first step. Gomez has to start recognizing himself the way his opponants see him, sorting what no longer works versus what continues to create good scoring chances.

In the alterations mentioned above, it is pivotal that he learn to better protect the puck in all situations. It is an emphasizable starting point that he commit more time to puck possession in certain situations to enable the setup of his wingers and defensemen. It essential to create an expansion of zone time so that Gomez can find find ways to remain in the zone longer.

One great aspect of his game is his elusiveness without the puck. Presently, his stays in the opposing zone are far too short to establish lenghty possession and return the puck to Gomez when he is open. That is when and how Gomez becomes most effective. His deft one-timed passes, difficult to get a read on, are missing from his bag of tricks. As he is often the first forward into the zone, the puck possession and set up time issues come back into play right here, as an increase in both would go a long way to reuniting him with the successful virtues of his perimeter game vision.

WHAT ONCE WORKED WELL

It is known that Gomez has long been a passer first, and that he has had tremendous success with that style of play. When I try to understand why it has worked so well for him in the past, I see two main reasons. The first is Gomez's speed buildup by the time he hits the blueline, and the second is the manner in which he practically holds his stick like a long wet noodle. He cradles the puck often effortlessly and lackadaisically, which sucks defenders in. He appears vulnerable, but is in fact in control.

The deception works best with time on his side. Played tighter he is less effective. Strictly looking at his stick and hands, it's a hard read to know precisely the moment when Gomez will pass, and where. But contrarily, when his options have been reduced by knowledgable coverage, Gomez loses his elusive edge. Simply put, Gomez's passing skills and demeanor aren't typical of traditional centers. Because of this, he's a bitch to read when at his best, but when his options are reduced it removes that problem for defenders.

Presently, Gomez's passes float and warble. They are all yodel and no sting. Instead of direct hard passes, it's as if he's targeting putting the puck in a bowl and not on a stick. One aspect of a good pass is threading the needle with precision, which is difficult in traffic. Passes need to be hard and crisp. If Gomez slows before making a saucer feed through a bow's loop, success is guaranteed to be inexistant.

The trouble is, with Gomez working the way he is now, after the removal of so many options, his best passses simply cannot be of the forward variety. There are generally reduced to laterals and drop feeds, and the predicament here is that if passes are soft, they create turnovers in risky areas when innacurate.

WORK IN PROGRESS

In the last ten games or so, I have noticed that Gomez is certainly attempting to change his spots. There have been visible modifications made in some areas and other appararent works in progress in others. There have been more shots in certain games, and more heading for the net overall. The results however, have been dependant upon the opponant quite often.

The key will be for Gomez to accept working in a manner he may not relish. Another key is the realization that to a great extent he's become a one trick pony. In all aspects, it is crucial that he accept being in more physically demanding situations.

As Gomez adapts, there are also visible traces of confusion. A slave to his own habits, he's doing the same things when a lack of space presents itself, only varying things where there is time. It has to be a hard adaptation, and the process will go through various phases of failure and success. For now, the attempt and effort is what should be monitored most.

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